The Bill Gunn Papers (1948-1994) document the extent of his career as a playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker, and contain material about his acting and directing accomplishments. Included in the collection are annotated drafts and final versions of play scripts, screenplays, teleplays, novels and short stories, and related programs, reviews, flyers and clippings, and letters.
Biographical/historical: William (Bill) Harrison Gunn was an African-American playwright, novelist, screenwriter, filmmaker, and actor who was active from the mid-1950s until his death in 1989. He was born on July 15, 1934 and raised in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, by his parents, William Harrison, Sr., a songwriter and poet, and Louise Alexander Gunn, an actress who directed a local theater company. After dropping out of high school to join the Navy, Gunn returned to Philadelphia in 1952 and found work as a scene painter at Neighborhood Playhouse, where he was cast as an extra in Street Scene.
Gunn moved to New York City's East Village to further pursue his acting career. In 1954, He made his Broadway debut in The Immoralist, and also appeared in the off-Broadway production of Take a Giant Step, and the television drama Carmen in Harlem, opposite Billie Allen. His later theater credits include The Member of the Wedding (1955) with Ethel Waters, Sign of Winter (1958), Moon on the Rainbow Shawl (1962), and the New York Shakespeare Festival productions of Antony and Cleopatra and A Winter's Tale (1963).
In 1959, the Theater Guild in New York produced Gunn's first play, Marcus in the High Grass, which was followed by the Celebration in 1965 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. Gunn's third play, the one-act Johnnas, premiered at the Chelsea Theatre in 1968 and was produced as a television special in 1972, earning Gunn an Emmy for Best Television Play. While Gunn expanded his career into television and film screenwriting throughout the late 1960s and 1970s, he returned to theater in 1975 with Black Picture Show," an AUDELCO Award-winning musical co-written with musician, Sam Wayman. Gunn continued to work as a playwright throughout the 1980s, producing "Rhinestone," a musical based on his 1981 semi-autobiographical novel, "Rhinestone Sharecropping," as well as "Family Employment" in 1985 and "The Forbidden City," his final work in 1989.
Gunn was a pioneer of black independent filmmaking. In 1970, he became the second black filmmaker to direct a film for a major studio with his directorial debut, "Stop," which was shelved by Warner Bros due to its controversial premise and X rating. In 1973, Gunn wrote, directed and acted in Ganja and Hess, a horror film about vampires starring Duane Jones and Marlene Clark. While the film was marketed as a blaxploitation film and received a limited release in the United States, it was critically acclaimed, and selected for Critic's Week at the Cannes Film Festival in 1973, and later recognized as one of the ten best American films of the decade by Cannes. Gunn later directed "Personal Problems" in 1980, an avant-garde soap opera extensively featuring black directors, writers and actors such as Vertamae Grosvenor, Walter Cotton, Michele Wallace, and Jim Wright.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Gunn also directed and produced a number of television programs, including "The Alberta Hunter Story," a five-part series about legendary jazz singer Alberta Hunter for the BBC, "The Life of Sojourner Truth" for CBS' "The American Parade," and a television special for Lena Horne produced by Bill Cosby. In addition to his extensive credits as a playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker, Gunn published two novels, All the Rest Have Died (1964) Rhinestone Sharecropping (1981).
Content: The Bill Gunn Papers (1948-1994) document the extent of his career as a playwright, screenwriter and filmmaker, and contain material about his acting and directing accomplishments. Included in the collection are annotated drafts and final versions of play scripts, screenplays, teleplays, novels and short stories, and related programs, reviews, flyers and clippings, and letters.
The Personal series, ca. 1948-1994, features biographical information about Gunn, including bibliographies, interviews, and clippings, as well as obituaries and memorial programs. There are files for Gunn's parents, Louise and William Harrison Gunn, Sr., personal correspondence and writing notes, and information about Gunn's estate.
The Professional series, ca. 1954-1986, offers a glimpse at Gunn's early career as an actor as well as his general professional endeavors beyond his work as a writer, and includes professional correspondence.
The Writing series, ca. 1959-1991, comprises the bulk of the collection and is organized into six sub-series: Novels, Short Stories, Playscripts, Screenplays, Teleplays, and General. The series encompasses the complete oeuvre of Gunn's work, demonstrating his creativity and experiences in each medium. The material includes drafts, galleys, annotated manuscripts, play scripts, and teleplays, production material, correspondence and notes pertaining to Gunn's four decades in show business, and contains both published/produced and unpublished/unproduced work. Of note are the playscripts for Black Picture Show (1975), Family Employment (1985), The Forbidden City (1989), Johnnas (1968), Marcus in the High Grass (1959), and Rhinestone (1982); and the screenplays of Ganja and Hess (1973), I Am the Greatest: The Life of Muhammad Ali, the original script of The Greatest (1977), The Landlord (1970), and the unreleased Stop (1970).
The Collected Materials series, ca. 1969-1986, consists of screenplays, teleplays and essays by other writers and actors, including Janus Adams, Wesley Brown, Dwayne McDuffie, Joe Morton, and Anthony Regusters. Notable material includes two screenplays for Shaft by John D. F. Black and Ernest Tidyman.